The Arizona Wildcats face a daunting task on Saturday night when they’ll be facing off against the Oregon Ducks in Arizona Stadium. The Ducks are favored by about 10 points in most sportsbooks, and come into the game ranked 19th in the AP Poll.
Nonetheless, there is still a chance for Arizona to pull off the home upset. Here are three keys to the game that will make a Wildcat victory much more likely.
1. Use Shawn Poindexter effectively
One of the biggest scapegoats for this season’s unexpected failures has been new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. Mazzone has failed to adjust his scheme to fit RichRod’s personnel, and it has cost Arizona all season and has effectively stopped one of the most explosive players in college football in quarterback Khalil Tate. There’s still time for change, though, and that needs to happen on Saturday.
With Rhett Rodriguez (likely) starting for the second time, the passing game will likely be a bit more stable than it was with Tate starting, as Rodriguez is a better pure passer. Still, he’s just a sophomore making his second start, so it’s important to build his confidence before unleashing him. The best way to do this is to involve Shawn Poindexter, Arizona’s tallest receiver by a wide margin at 6-foot-5. Ideally, Mazzone would start with some throws in the flat or some slants for Rodriguez to gain confidence. Once Rodriguez has some completions under his belt, Poindexter can be used as a deep threat due to his height and explosiveness.
It might be fanciful to expect a good offensive gameplan after eight dreadful ones thus far, but it’s possible for Mazzone and Rodriguez to get the Wildcat offense churning against a strong opponent for the first time this season.
2. Get to Justin Herbert
One of the few promising signs of this season has been the development of the defensive front seven. Colin Schooler and Tony Fields were already solid players, but they’ve gotten even better in 2018, and now they have some help up front with players like Kylan Wilborn and PJ Johnson performing well. The Wildcats will need to keep that up against a powerful Ducks offense.
It’s no secret that Justin Herbert is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, but what also gets left out is that he’s one of the most experienced in the nation as well. He knows what needs to happen on any given play, and probably can’t be outsmarted by the Arizona defense. He can be pressured though, and if that happens, Arizona might be able to keep up with Oregon. Herbert isn’t particularly bad under pressure, but no quarterback is good with defenders closing in. If the ‘Cats can force some throwaways or even a few sacks, that’ll go a long way.
Arizona’s ability to create havoc plays has been sorely lacking in recent years. If there was ever a time to show development on that front, it’s now. If Herbert is given all day, he’ll likely pick apart the Wildcat defense with ease.
3. Start strong and keep the crowd hyped
It’s Homecoming weekend in Tucson, and it’s the first Arizona home game in three weeks. Arizona Stadium could be more full than it’s been since the season opener, and if Arizona can start strong and keep close, it’ll be very loud all night long.
Last season’s Homecoming was the same weekend as this year’s, and Arizona was also welcoming a ranked team with a highly-touted quarterback: Washington State. Thanks to Khalil Tate, Arizona beast Wazzu by 21 that night, and entered the CFP rankings the following week. This year’s Wildcats are not the same team as that, but an exciting game on Homecoming is a recipe for a home-field advantage.
Arizona has started slow for most of the season, and they must turn that around this weekend for a win. With Oregon’s offense, there’s little hope of catching up if a large deficit develops, and the crowd will be taken out of the game. If Arizona can keep it within a touchdown or so heading into the second quarter, or if they makes some big plays, Arizona Stadium will be rocking, and the Wildcats might stand a chance.